Playing With Fire
Volume 2 Issue 27
by Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. The Mishkan
(tabernacle) was finally completed, and the celebration had begun. Ahron
the High Priest and his children brought special offerings, and the joy of
accomplishment permeated the camp of the Jewish Nation. Then tragedy stuck.
Ahron's two sons, Nadav and Avihu, brought an offering that the Torah
characterizes as "an alien fire that Hashem had not commanded. A fire went
out from before Hashem and consumed them, and they died before Hashem."
Varying Talmudic and Medrashic opinions argue as to what exact sin they
committed. Some commentaries interpret the literal verse by explaining that
Ahron's children rendered a Halachic (Biblical law) decision in front of
their master, Moshe. Others say that they performed their service after
drinking wine. Still others argue that their true punishment was deserved
at Sinai. They refused to marry claiming that their lineage was so
dignified that no maiden could ever meet their standard. Another
interpretation is that they began to discuss their future leadership roles
that they would secure after the two old men (Moshe and Ahron) passed on.
In all these varying opinions a major question must be addressed. If those
were their actual sins, why then did the Torah use the terminology "a
strange fire that Hashem had not commanded" to describe their
transgression? Obviously those words are fit to describe each
interpretation that is offered. How?
The Dubno Magid would often relate the following parable: After receiving
his promotion to captain, a young sergeant was given his new uniform. He
was strictly warned by his appointing general. "Officer, this uniform is
your badge of honor. Wear it with pride, and never remove it in public!
Remember, you represent the king's elite forces, and your life is now
devoted to enhance the honor of his kingdom."
Not long after his commission some seamen in a public park chided the young
officer. "We hear you have a large tattoo across your chest reading "I
miss my Mom." The young officer was enraged at this humiliating claim, and
disputed it vehemently. He was tempted to strip to the waist, but
remembered the stern warning not to remove his coat. Suddenly one of the
sailors declared, "we will contribute 500 golden pieces to the King's
treasury if you don't have the tattoo -- but only if you prove it now!"
In a patriotic move that the sergeant felt would surely bring pleasure to
the commander-in-chief, he bared his chest, proved his point and collected
the 500 gold coins. He ran to the general with the money and expected a
commendation. Unfortunately, a shower of abuse greeted the neophyte
officer. "You fool! I just lost a fortune because of your stupidity. I bet
the Navy admiral 2,500 gold pieces that not one of my soldiers would ever
remove their uniforms publicly! "
Perhaps there is a common thread among all the explanations of the sins of
Nadav and Avihu. In all of the opinions, they had the best of intentions
but their actions lacked protocol and guidance. Actions without protocol
can have disastrous results. Nadav and Avihu were considered very holy and
pious. But the small degree of over-confidence led to their acting without
consort. It led to their demise. Perhaps they felt that they were in a
position to render judgment without Moshe, or that a little wine may have
enhanced their service. Maybe they felt that marriage was beneath them. In
theory they may have been correct. But they made decisions without
consultation, advice, or consent. They were looked forward to their own
leadership -- a leadership that never materialized. They had the desire to
contribute their own fire, according to their own visions, but the Torah
considered it alien.
The Mishkan was given to the Jews to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf.
It was at the Golden Calf where the young nation rushed to judgment without
true guidance. As soon as Hashem felt that the self-directed scenario was
about to recur in the Mishkan, He made a powerful statement. It was as if
the Mishkan had a nuclear charge. When dealing with high levels of
radioactivity, one cannot forego the slightest established protocol. If you
experiment with fire, especially an alien fire, unfortunately you get
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